Recently, I landed an extremely large 30-day project from a client that would normally take 3--4 months to prepare and complete. The company had good financial resources but were short of people knowledgeable in this particular process. Normally I would push back on the timeline and some of my colleagues actually did. But the reasoning for a fast completion was compelling. Plus the compensation for getting it done on time was rewarding, so I took it on.
When taking on projects like this, my theatrical training serves me well. In theatre we are used to these fire drills. We are always building mountains and castles and creating entire worlds in 30--45 days. Because there is usually a large amount of experimentation in a theatre arts project, sometimes you have to scrap ideas and start over at the last minute. But ultimately, you have no choice but to finish on time because come opening night the show must go on.
This sort of tight deadline project management has been going on successfully since the time of the ancient Greeks. Here are the 8 steps we theatre people use to get things done absolutely on time in a crunch.
1. Strip away the unnecessary. When you first get the project, there are usually a lot of "nice to haves." Identify those quickly and determine what's truly important for the project to be successful. Cut the project down to just the "must-do" items for the desired outcome. You can always add in bells and whistles if time and resources permit.
2. Plan slowly to move quickly. So many people just jump in haphazardly with a big, quick project. Then they hit a dead end because they didn't think it through or they didn't have the right resources. This is the death of efficiency. Better to spend a few hours or even a day talking through the scope and planning. That way you can triage appropriately setting the priorities based upon available time and resources.
3. Grab the right team. For all the drama in a theatre production, most of it is kept on stage with the performers. There is no need for theatrics among the team when you are in a tight race to the finish. Pick your team members carefully. Leave the panicky people outside the working group. Enlist the specialists you need and a few creative utility players that can take on any job. Make sure there is one person in charge of documentation and logistics.
4. Make a clear division of labor. Don't let people just assume tasks. If you put all the work on a few people and others are sitting around, you'll never make the deadline. Have a clear checklist of the items to be completed with dates and times. Make sure each item has only 1 person accountable so you know who owns the project. Make sure people assess the time it takes to do those projects figuring in outside dependencies and distractions.
5. Have brief but regular check-ins. When you are in the rush, details can get lost in the cracks. Make sure your team is communicating regularly. Email and text is insufficient. Set a brief huddle for once a day, or twice near the end. This is a chance to do a 15-minute check in to make sure no one is stuck and nothing has been forgotten. Don't use it for long discussions or you will derail the team. Take big issues offline unless you need the whole team to weigh in on a longer meeting.
6. Make use of elves. In my current project, we are building a long-term system. The challenge is that many of the proper methods necessary for scalability would take months to install. Our only choice is to throw people at the problem. We can hire people to manually do today what we'll program into the computers eventually. It will be seamless at the front. Behind the scenes doesn't matter for now. Nobody needed to know at the time that the doors on the original Star Trek were actually opened and closed by people because the technology didn't exist.
7. Build in time for testing. If you run your production process right up to the last minute of the launch, something is bound to go embarrassingly wrong. In Theatre we have Tech Rehearsals to pre test all the complications before performance. Schedule in a day or two before the end. It won't upset your deadline and you'll for sure be glad you tried it all first.
8. Accept what is good enough. You don't need to skimp on quality, but not everything needs to be perfect down to the last detail. Focus the effort on what's truly important. In most productions people would sit 20 feet away. No need to make it look good from 10 feet. Wow them where you can and make everything else passible. Once you launch you can improve along the way.
If after all this the project still seems daunting, maybe you should hire a theatre person.
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